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10/19/2012 04:37 pm ET

Minnesota Bans Coursera, Provider Of Free Online Courses, Citing Decades-Old Law

In a move that has many scratching their heads, Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education has banned Coursera — an educational technology startup that provides massive open online courses (MOOC’S) — citing a longstanding state law that prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. The state claims Coursera was never granted such permission.

A policy analyst for Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education told The Chronicle that letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in the state, though she was unaware if that group included other MOOC providers like edX and Udacity.

Since the law is targeted at degree-granting programs — not content freely available on the web — Coursera co-founder and Stanford computer science professor Daphne Koller said it was unclear why the popular provider was included in the crackdown.

That said, Coursera has updated its terms of service to make note of the restriction to Minnesota residents:

If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

Slate reports that George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, clarified that his office’s issue isn’t necessarily with Coursera, but the universities offering classes via its website. He said he was surprised when Coursera updated its terms of service, since he presumed the company’s partner institutions would have little difficulty obtaining proper registration. Roedler also claims the law is intended to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions. However, as both Slate and The Chronicle point out, the fact that Coursera’s courses are free means no one is wasting their money.

Coursera currently offers more than 200 courses from 33 institutions, open to anyone with Internet access. Officials said the website has registered 1.3 million students around the world.

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